CONWAY, SC (WMBF) – A Conway man has pleaded guilty to one charge of forced labor and admitted to using violence, threats, isolation and intimidation to compel an mentally-challenged man to work at his restaurant for over 100 hours a week without pay over a number of years.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 53, pleaded guilty Monday in United States District Court, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
Between 2009 and 2014, Edwards managed a Conway restaurant where the victim, John Christopher Smith, had worked since he was 12 years old. Smith was identified in court documents as "JCS." WMBF News spoke to Smith in 2015 about the years of "torture" he endured while working at the J&J Cafeteria in Conway.
Once Edwards began managing the restaurant in 2009, he increased Smith's duties, requiring him to work more than 100 hours a week, the DOJ release states. Edwards stopped paying Smith, and "began using violence, threats, isolation, and intimidation to compel" Smith's service.
"He would beat me with belts and all that," Smith said in a 2015 interview with WMBF News. "Take the tongs to the grease on my neck."
Edwards also subjected Smith to abusive language, racial epithets, threats, and other acts of violence, according to court documents and Edward's own admissions.
Authorities removed Smith from the restaurant in October 2014 after receiving complaints about the abuse.
Smith's advocate, Geneane Caines, said she got involved because she cares, and she was familiar with the case. Her daughter in law is a waitress at the restaurant. She reported the abuse to authorities and took Smith to the Conway NAACP meeting in October 2014 for help. She says she also contacted the Department of Social Services.
A Conway police report shows on October 10 of 2014, Conway police assisted the agency in removing Smith from the property. It says he was taken to an undisclosed location for his safety.
"Human trafficking through forced labor can happen on farms, in homes, and as today's case shows – in public places, such as restaurants," said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. "Edwards abused an African-American man with intellectual disabilities by coercing him to work long hours in a restaurant without pay. Combatting human trafficking by forced labor is one of the highest priorities of this Justice Department and today's guilty plea reflects our commitment to seeking justice on behalf of victims of human trafficking."
"This defendant abused a vulnerable victim, and today's guilty plea holds the defendant responsible for his criminal acts," said U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon for the District of South Carolina.
According to the news release, Edwards faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for forced labor, a $250,000 maximum fine, and mandatory restitution to the victim. A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled. According to the terms of the plea agreement, the defendant will also be required to pay restitution to Smith in an amount to be determined at the time of sentencing.
This case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, the release states. "The case is being prosecuted by Special Litigation Counsel Jared Fishman, Trial Attorney Lindsey Roberson of the Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section and its Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alyssa Leigh Richardson of the District of South Carolina."